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May 24, 2017
Wednesday, June 26, 2019
The U.S. Supreme Court recently considered time limitations on actions for defrauding the federal government. Under the False Claims Act, the government or a private party may sue an individual for submitting a false claim to the federal government. 31 U.S.C. 3729(a)(1). The statute requires a claim be filed within six years of the incident, or three years of a government official learning of the incident. No claim can be filed ten years after the incident occurred. 31 U.S.C. 3731(b).
In Cochise Consultancy, Inc. v. United States ex rel. Hunt, 139 S.Ct. 1507 (2019), the Court considered whether the limitation is impacted by the government intervening as a party in the lawsuit, and whether a private relator is considered a government official.
The Court first concluded that the statute provides the same amount of time to bring an action regardless of whether the government intervenes. Justice Thomas explained that the plain text of the statute does not lend itself to different interpretations. Id at 1513. The text states clearly that a claim must be filed within six years of the incident, or three years of when a government official knew or should have known of the incident, whichever is later. The Court declines investigation beyond the plain meaning of the text, absent ambiguity. Id.
The Court then rebuffs Petitioner’s argument that the applicable limitation is three years, because a private relator qualifies as a government official within the meaning of § 3731(b)(2). A relator cannot become an employee or appointee of the federal government by filing a civil action. Id at 1514. The statute’s use of “the official charged with responsibility to act” indicates that specific officers are contemplated by the statute, not any relator. Id (emphasis added).
The Court affirmed the Eleventh Circuit’s judgment. The Court concluded that the government’s intervention does not impact the time a party has to bring an action under and that, for purposes of the False Claims Act, a private relator is not considered a government official.
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